Guantanamo - 'Honor Bound to Defend Freedom'

Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo (from spoken evidence)

Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn

(2004)

Review by Philip Fisher

Under artistic director Nicolas Kent, the Tricycle is now building on its big reputation for Tribunal Plays, which started ten years ago and possibly reached a peak in 1999, with The Colour of Justice, based on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. Most recently, at the end of last year it produced Justifying War, which reconstructed the Hutton inquiry into the war in Iraq.

Guantanamo is somewhat different from its predecessors, in that while it uses the words of protagonists, there is no court case or formal inquiry involved. That fact, in itself, begs many questions.

This can be a both blessing and a problem, as it means that there is no set structure. The early part of the drama, in which first a Law Lord and then a pair of relatives set the scene, can be extremely slow. Things start moving forwards and Guantanamo becomes really hard-hitting when it introduces some of the prisoners who have spent two or more years incarcerated in Cuba.

The set designed by Miriam Buether is simple but extremely effective, as it depicts what a solicitor describes as the "terrible, stark, medieval horror" of the place. The playing area is flanked by tiny, claustrophobic 8ft x 8ft cages that make it abundantly clear that these prisoners are treated more like battery chickens than human beings.

In about two hours, the morality of imprisoning Muslims without trial, habeas corpus or proper contact with relatives and friends is examined. The villains of this piece are the politicians, US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld and, to a lesser extent, the British Home Secretary, Jack Straw. It is they who have ducked and dived to avoid the Geneva Convention and humanitarian attempts to protect and free the prisoners.

The writers have avoided the issue of whether there may be terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the three English individuals on whom they primarily focus are clearly innocent, arguably too much so for political balance. There has to be at least the possibility that some of those still held were terrorists or at the very least, sympathisers.

Where Guantanamo really becomes moving is when it introduces the character of Tom Clarke, played by Theo Fraser Steel. He is young Englishman whose sister was incinerated in New York on what he doesn't like to call 9/11. Despite his terrible loss, it is his plea for the release of the prisoners that has the strongest impact. This is built upon, as we see the innocent British prisoners broken both mentally and physically before their release, or while still awaiting it today.

Guantanamo is not entirely successful as a piece of theatre but the testimonies eventually build up to a powerful indictment of political wrongdoing. They also demonstrate that, while the Americans have held over 600 people in Cuba without trial, the British are not entirely innocent, with a dozen people locked up indefinitely at Belmarsh Prison in South-East London, on similar grounds and without any charges.

This kind of political theatre has the power to change lives and, in this case, to rescue people from a living hell. For this, the whole of the production team should be proud.